Leaving the nest: Supporting a child at university

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Young man having depression sitting on the bed
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20th August 2018
A new student arriving at university

 

As the last of the A-level results envelopes are picked from the floor, parents, guardians and students alike will start to consider the next steps in life. For many this will be the first time a child has spent a substantial amount of time living away from home, bringing with them a sense of endless opportunity and excitement, but also the potential for anxiety and homesickness.

 

As a parent, letting go can often be a difficult and isolating experience, especially when your child is struggling to adapt to a whole new world. Fortunately, there are still ways of supporting a child at university. After all,  just because they’ve started a new journey, it doesn’t mean they have to do it alone.

 

Imposter syndrome

It’s something that everyone has likely experienced at one point in their life. The little voice in the back of their mind telling them that they don’t belong here, that they slipped through the net, that soon enough they’ll be found out as the actor they are. What most people fail to recognise though is that virtually everyone else feels the same way, too busy holding up their own masks to fully see those of others.

 

Commonly known as “imposter syndrome” this phenomenon reaches out into every corner of work and life. From top business leaders to Hollywood actors such as Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, it’s often a natural reaction to dismiss our own successes as a stroke of luck. In fact, Kate Winslet was once recorded stating that “[She would] wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.” A demonstration of how imposter syndrome can present itself even in our favourite idols.

 

It’s not uncommon to hear a new student express doubts about their ability, especially in an environment where more is expected of them than ever before. However, reminding them that they’ve earned their place based on merit is an important part of building a platform of confidence from which all else follows. Often this feeling resolves itself after a few weeks as people become friends and open up to each other, sharing their anxieties and experiences; other times gaining constructive feedback from mentors and peers reminds them that struggle is sometimes just a sign that they’re being intellectually challenged in a way they previously haven’t – a key component of growth.  

 

It’s important to remember that imposter syndrome is much more common in high achievers, simply reflecting the internal expectation that we put on ourselves. Taking as much pressure as you can from your child is a simple thing you can do to help relieve this expectation. Instead of asking what went wrong on an exam ask what went right for example. Positive reinforcement is key, sooner or later everyone realises that they really do belong.

 

Big fish in a bigger pond

At school, it can often become easy for gifted students to seemingly coast through the years, seeing themselves as a ‘big fish’ sitting at the top of their field, be the class, sports team or orchestra. Throughout the course of school, these students can become complacent in their ability, leading to potential shock when introduced to an environment where everyone else is at the same base level.

 

Take the straight-A student now surrounded by other straight A students. The thing that made them different at school is now the very same thing that unites everyone. While liberating for some, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy as they realise they are no longer the biggest fish in the pond. Indeed, they may not even be close.

 

Again this can lead to an imposter syndrome developing, a feeling that everyone else is somehow more deserving of their place; smarter, faster or musically brilliant in ways they could never be. However, the reality is that university is a place to challenge oneself and learn from others, not compete with them. The root of a ‘small-fish’ mentality is nearly always a result of comparing yourself to the ability of others, failing to realise just how much they’ve already achieved.

 

It’s fitting that the best words of advice come from a real life small fish – Dory from Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming” she repeats throughout the film, a reminder that these feelings won’t persist forever. Indeed, by forming part of a support network that appreciates your child’s individuality, you can help them remember that they are unique and that they bring something to the table after all.

 

Homesickness  

One of, if not the most common issue students face is one of homesickness, particularly in the first few months. When you consider that there’s a completely new environment, completely new people and a completely new way of life, it’s not unsurprising – even if home is only half an hour away.

 

If there’s a comfort in numbers, know that up to 70% of students will experience homesickness in the early days of university – it’s a completely normal part of settling into new life and one that often subsides once relationships start to take hold and a routine is developed. There are some things you can do to help in those initial stages though. While packing, prepare some home comforts to ease the transition. This way your child’s new environment will still have the essence of home. Whether it’s cushions, pictures or a box full of home-baked goods, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s meaningful it’ll help create a feeling of familiarity that nothing else quite can.

 

Try and avoid the temptation of immediately coming out to visit. While university is about academic education it’s also about gaining independence. It can be difficult to strike this balance of offering support without becoming a crutch to lean on, but staggering calls and visits is a good way to do this. Agree to have a call every few days initially and perhaps prepare a visit home halfway through the term (during a reading week is best), before reducing the frequency of calls as they settle into life and start spreading their wings.

 

Depression

Over the last ten years the number of students reporting signs of depression at university has steadily increased. In 2016 a YouGov poll indicated that one in four students reported experiencing a mental health concern, of which 77% of these were related to depression. This figure is disproportionally split, with females and LGBTQ individuals significantly more likely to experience symptoms than others.

 

Although the reasons are often varied and complex, many stem from feelings of isolation from cliques or the stress of punishing course deadlines and material that takes time to get to grips with. Add into the mix an expectation to be outgoing and an ingrained drinking culture and perhaps it’s little wonder people begin to feel develop these negative feelings.  

 

If your child expresses depressive thoughts to you, encourage them to get in touch with university mental health services immediately. Normally they have a team of experienced staff who are familiar with the kinds of issues students face, and are especially in tune with any specific problems brought about that university in particular. If things get worse or no progress is made it may be wise to ask for an intermission of study – a discussion with their tutor can help establish whether impacts to grades and health make this the best course of action to take.

 

Alternatively, it may be highly beneficial to enlist the services of a professional therapist, who can help identify the causes of the depression before implementing a suitable treatment plan. During this period it’s important to be as supportive as possible, scheduling time to make visits if possible or at least increasing the frequency of calls. Depression is often referred to as the loneliest place, but by reaching out you can be a valuable hand to hold when it’s needed most.

 

At Psytherapy we know that the path from home is an exciting one, with a bright future at the end of it. That said, there’s nothing like having support when there’s a bump in the road, so whether you’re simply looking for advice or considering discussing therapy options, get in touch today, completely confidentially. Alternatively, if you’ve overcome mental health issues at university or have any tips for anyone currently experiencing them we’d encourage you to share your story in the comments below.

 

Thank You!

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